No Day of Rest for America’s Farmworkers

Of the diverse food-related causes about which Americans are concerned, including public health, the environment and animal welfare, one that’s often overlooked is the issue of rights for the nation’s farmworkers — those in the fields and on factory farms who pick, pack and process our food.

“More Americans than ever are interested in knowing where their food comes from,” says the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, produced by the United Farm Workers and the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, “but even the most conscientious eaters and food industry professionals are usually in the dark about who picked it.” Most of us know nothing about the conditions in which they work, conditions engendered by an industrial food system.

It is a system that rewards output and efficiency over all else, moving food producers to cut corners anywhere they can. For workers, this has brought about hazardous working conditions, poverty-level wages and minimal protection through labor laws.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries,” with farmers “at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers.”

According to the 2008 USDA Profile of Hired Farmworkers, farmworkers are “among the most economically disadvantaged working groups in the U.S.” and “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”

Farmworkers, moreover, have fewer legal rights in the workplace, and those they do have are not often enforced. This, a 2009 New York Times editorial notes, “is a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era.” New Deal reforms protected the rights of workers in many industries, in areas like overtime pay, workers’ compensation and days of rest, but, as a result of political compromise, farm and domestic workers were excluded. “Segregationist Southern Democrats in Congress,” according to the editorial, “could not abide giving African-Americans, who then made up most of the farm and domestic labor force, an equal footing in the workplace with whites.” This inequity, after more than 70 years, has yet to be corrected.

Unbelievably, there are cases of full-blown slavery today. In “Tomatoland,” as Care2′s Jaelithe Judy wrote in September 2011, Barry Estabrook reports on the conditions for workers on industrial tomato farms in Florida. If anyone on the crew was unable to work at one farm he investigated, “they were kicked in the heads, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains.” Seven slavery operations have been prosecuted in Florida since 1997, and some experts believe there may be scores if not hundreds more around the country.

As many as 85 percent of farmworkers in the United States are immigrants (most from Mexico), 81% identify Spanish as their native language and 53% do not have legal authorization to work in the U.S. Few among them feel they have any recourse to action against exploitative and abusive employers.

At the root of these rampant injustices is an industrial food system, shaped as much by government policies as business practices, in which the competition to produce the cheapest food at any cost — including the cost to humanity — is fierce. At what point will we draw the line and say cheap food just isn’t worth the price we pay for it as a society?

Yet it’s easy to forget what you can’t see. That’s one of the points made in the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the U.S.: “the current lack of accessible data and documentation about farmworkers’ employment — and their ultimate role in the food system — has in effect kept farmworkers hidden from public attention.”

I won’t claim to take the time to lament the conditions in which these farmworkers work every time I sit down to eat. But on this Labor Day at least, a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” Americans might spare a moment to remember the people who may have had a hand in bringing them that peach, burger or salad they’re about to bite into.

Related Stories:

U.S. Female Farmworkers: Silent Victims of Sexual Violence

Florida Potato Grower Accused of Labor Trafficking

Anti-Immigrant Backlash and a Political Catch 22

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos


Duane B.
.3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Fi T.
Fi T.3 years ago

This is exploitation

Diane L.
Diane L.4 years ago

BTW, not sure where you are getting your information about "average" temperatures, but it isn't 84 degrees in this state, even in Eastern Washington.

Diane L.
Diane L.4 years ago

(cont)....... Sometimes at harvest time, or where my grandson lived, "hay baling" time, they did hire a few to help out. Sure, hard work for not a lot of money, but it was better than nothing. If I didn't answer your question, sorry. Ask something more specific and I'll try to address it, okay? Here's an example of the work that my oldest grandson did after moving here, and he was glad to get it..........he helped my hay supplier load and unload hay to customers. He would unload a semi that had 29 ton and would go home with about $50 - $60. Not much pay and a lot of hard work but he was glad to get it.

Diane L.
Diane L.4 years ago

Hi, Erica. I'll try to answer your question as best I can, but I'm not sure what that question is. The climate here is obviously not as hot and humid as where you live, nor as hot and humid as Georgia, however, my oldest grandson and his wife live near Atlanta and I talk to him on the phone regularly. The weather here is actually warmer right now than it is there. Eastern Washington is hotter and much drier. The agriculture is primarily in Eastern Washington and the farms there employ migrants much of the time. Many locals can't get work on the farms and WOULD, if they could. Yes, like you, I picked berries in the summer to make money for school. Those jobs don't exist anymore because of labor laws regarding minors. Before my grandson and his wife moved to Atlanta (she is from there), he went for over two years without finding work. They moved here from Eastern Washington, in the heart of farm country. He would gladly have worked the fields if he could have found a job but they hired migrants because they figured U.S. citizens would not stay around if something better came along. The pay would at least have paid the rent and bought a few groceries. Saying Americans aren't "tough" enough to work fields is somewhat insulting. Family members do work the fields and always have. They just don't hire "outsiders" except migrants most of the time. Sometimes at harvest time, or where my grandson lived, "hay baling" time, they did hire a few to help out. Sure, hard wor

Erica B.
Erica B.4 years ago

Hi Diane L. I have a question. Is it possible that American citizens do not want to do that backbreaking, low-wage, and no health insurance work in Alabama, because it gets up to 100 degrees in the summer with enough humidity to cut the air with a butter knife? I picked strawberries and blueberries in the summer up north when I was a teen, and even though summer got hot, it wasn't "Africa hot" like it is in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and such. People have dropped over dead in weather like that. The immigrants are tougher (more acclimated) since they been doing these jobs for years.

Now in Washington State, I can see American citizens supplementing their income with planting and picking crops, since it does not get as hot there. Average summer temps there are approx 84 yea, more Americans would see picking crops to be hard work, yet do-able with the weather.

Diane L.
Diane L.4 years ago

" As Alabama found out, Americans will no longer do those jobs. It's too hard, doesn't pay enough and they find it demeaning".....and of course, Wendy, the forward-thinking State of Alabama is always an authority on intelligent behavior? They're in the "bible belt" of inbreeding and backwoods mentality. Very poor logic to use such a state to try to get across the idea that all Americans will no longer work fields because it's "too hard and doesn't pay enough". Many in my state would gladly accept such work if they could get it, since it's better than no work at all.

Wendy Schroeder
Wendy Schroeder4 years ago

People complain about Mexicans and other immigrants (legal or illegal) taking jobs from Americans. As Alabama found out, Americans will no longer do those jobs. It's too hard, doesn't pay enough and they find it demeaning. We should be grateful for these hard workers! I'm willing to pay a little more for food if they will be treated better. Also, the owners of anything to do with the farms, shipping, processing and stores should be less greedy. I mean you CEOs who are overpaid.